DECEMBER 7, 2001 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

No Longer Obscure, Memri Translates the Arab World

But Detractors Say a Right-Wing Agenda Distorts Think-Tank's Service to Journalists


Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen, two of America's most widely quoted columnists, call it "invaluable." And their respective newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, rely on it frequently.

After two years of near obscurity, the resurgent intifada and the terrorist attacks of September 11 have made the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based and pro-Israel non-profit organization that translates the Arabic press into English, an invaluable resource to both journalists and politicians alike.

They use Memri's translations to scrutinize anti-American and anti-Jewish incitement. But they also use it to help explain a seeming paradox: how it is that Arab countries voicing official support for Washington have nonetheless bred terrorists bent on destroying America.

"We just try to bridge the gap and allow Americans to see for themselves what is written in the mainstream Arab press," said Yigal Carmon, 55, Memri's Israeli co-founder and president. "A few years ago, no one was interested in what the Arabs were saying and reading. Today, the American papers are proud to show their knowledge of the Arab press."

But some critics charge that it is a selective knowledge of the Arabic-speaking world that Memri is offering. They say the organization purposefully chooses the most egregious articles and editorials in order to push the rightist political agenda of its founders.

"They are selective and act as propagandists for their political point of view, which is the extreme-right of Likud," said Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counterintelligence's unit. "They simply don't present the whole picture."

The translations, called dispatches, are circulated approximately four times per week via fax and e-mail. They can be classified into two main categories: outrageous anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes on the one hand, and self-critical articles about the Arab world on the other.

Before September 11, Memri generally added 10 to 20 new subscribers per day. Now the average hovers around 50 per day and the total has reached 12,000, according to Steven Stalinsky, Memri's Washington director.

One of Memri's "scoops" occurred in October, when the group circulated the translation of a blatantly anti-Semitic interview given by Sheik Muhammad al-Gamei'a, a former imam of the largest mosque in New York City, to the unofficial web site of Cairo's Al-Azhar University. The New York Times picked up the story after it checked the translation with two experts.

"We don't play around with the text and the context, the meat is just there," Mr. Carmon said.

With offices in Washington, Jerusalem and London, Memri functions on a "very tight" $1.2 million budget, Mr. Carmon said, raised exclusively from private donors he declined to name. He added that the organization had experienced "major growth" in the last year. The staff has doubled from 9 to 17 and the organization has plans to open offices in Germany and France.

Mr. Carmon, a former top official with Aman, the Israeli military intelligence service, served as a counter-terrorism adviser to former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.

After the Labor party came to power in the 1992 elections, he became a much-quoted opponent of the the Oslo peace accords, which he called a "historic disaster." The co-founder of Memri, American scholar Meyrav Wurmser, has expressed similar views and advocated the revival of the nationalist values defended by revisionist Jewish leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Both Mr. Carmon and Ms. Wurmser claim, however, that their political leanings don't influence what Memri chooses to translate.

"I really don't think that our opinions — to which we are entitled, by the way — are reflected in our work," said Ms. Wurmser, who left Memri last year to head the Middle East center at the conservative Hudson Institute. "Our translations raise the issue of incitement and this bothers some people. But let's not shoot the messenger. I understand it is not easy to be an Arab and see this stuff circulated."

The Memri founders stress that they are quoting the government-controlled press and not obscure or extremist publications, a fact their critics acknowledge.

"When we quote Al-Ahram in Egypt, it is as if we were quoting The New York Times," said Mr. Carmon, who speaks Arabic fluently. "We know there are people questioning our work, probably those who have difficulties seeing the truth. But no one can show anything wrong about our translations."

Still, observers of Memri's work claim the articles are carefully chosen to shed the worst light possible on the Arab world.

"There is of course some horrific stuff in the Arab press, but one tends to forget that the American press can also be very nasty," said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). "Memri performs a useful function but unfortunately they have a pro-Israel, right-wing agenda."

Before co-founding Memri, Mr. Carmon was a member of the so-called "gang of three," a group of lobbyists — which also included former Shamir chief of staff Yossi Ben-Aharon and ex-diplomatic liaison to Congress Yoram Ettinger — that in the mid-1990s reportedly lobbied Congress against the Oslo accords and was said to be instrumental in swaying lawmakers not to position U.S. troops on the Golan Heights in the event of a peace settlement with Syria.

Mr. Carmon denies that he lobbied against Oslo. "I just continued to do what I did when I was in office and what I would do if I still was: explaining that the PLO does not live up to its commitments. And I was doing this on my own, with my money."

Reports have also linked Mr. Carmon at the time with a small group of hard-line American terrorism experts that includes investigative journalist Steve Emerson, former FBI associate deputy Oliver "Buck" Revell and a former FBI counterterrorism chief, Steve Pomerantz.

Mr. Carmon said he was trying to create an anti-terrorist think-tank with Mr. Revell and Mr. Pomerantz. But other observers believe there was more to it.

"They were fund-raising together in D.C. to create this institute," said Mr. Cannistraro, the former CIA official. "They asked me to come on board but I refused because I saw this was capped by Israeli intelligence" — referring to Mr. Carmon and his spear-heading of the project —"and because it was too political."

Mr. Carmon denied any Israel intelligence link or funding at the time. Mr. Emerson told the Forward he only knew Mr. Carmon as a friend and an "excellent expert" and that the accusations about his political motivations were "ridiculous and below the belt."

Memri has also reportedly received translation help from a Hebrew University professor, Menachem Milson, who was appointed in 1981 by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon as the head of the newly-formed civilian administration in the West Bank.

Still, even for doves, Memri provides a look into a world that is too often shrouded. "Even though I have issues with the way they editorialize, I have to admit that there is a lot of hostility toward Israel and the Jews lately," said Lewis Roth, the Washington director of the leftist group Americans for Peace Now.

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